Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Insanity of a Travel Ban to Siwa

The temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle proclaimed Alexander the Great to be a god.

In defiance of his own nation’s restrictions, Cornelis Hulsman not only went to Siwa, he invited international student interns, Egyptian nationals, media professionals, and just about everyone else in Egypt to travel with him.

“Western travel advice to Siwa is insane,” said Hulsman, the Dutch deputy head of the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU). “We are taking this trip to make a statement. You say it is unsafe, we’ll show you it is safe.”

On the surface, insanity might look a lot like prudence. Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, is only 50-70 kilometers from the porous border with Libya. Last year in the Bahariya Oasis, 400 kilometers southeast, eight Mexican tourists were killed accidentally by an Egyptian army hunting for militants. In Sinai on the opposite border, an Islamist insurgency continues to plague the peninsula, with terrorist attacks sporadically spilling over into the mainland. And in broader context, Russia and Britain have restricted flights to Egypt after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai desert on October 31, 2015, with responsibility claimed by the Islamic State.

Many nations have responded by issuing various travel restrictions to Egypt in general, and CAWU has compiled a complete list. But The Netherlands, France, and Canada have specifically included Siwa, and Hulsman believes this is preposterous. The successful return of his trip of 29 suggest he may be right. So also do the daily and nightly buses departing from Cairo.

Off the beaten path of traditional Egyptian tourism, Siwa’s remoteness has always been the chief hindrance preventing development of the sector. Ten hours is required to move from Cairo to the North Coast, over to Marsa Matrouh, and then 300 kilometers south through barren and desolate desert.

But compared to Alexander the Great’s eight day journey in 331 BC it is practically instantaneous. Modern day travelers can see the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle declared Alexander a god and blessed him in conquest of the world. They can also visit natural hot springs and sand baths, as well as mingle among the only Berber culture indigenous to Egypt. The Siwan people have guarded their independence for centuries and still speak their own language.

Hulsman has looked for opportunities to link CAWU’s internship program with local organizations such as the Desert Research Center. ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Hamīd, head of the DRC in Marsa Matrouh, told him the government has been cutting funding. But universities in countries applying a travel ban to Siwa are prohibited from sending students to restricted area. Interns on Hulsman’s trip went in their personal capacity, not as part of his official program.

But normal tourists are scared off on their own. One issue is insurance, explained Muhammad Hassan, the owner of Siwa Shali Resort, with 36 years of experience in the tourism industry. If anything goes wrong, whether terrorism or a simple car accident, a policy will not be honored if the tourist went against his own nation’s warning. Egyptian insurance is available, says Hulsman, but would the average tourist know how to find it?

At the height of the Egyptian tourism boom in 2010 and before the Arab Spring, 30,000 international tourists spent part of their summer in Egyptian Mediterranean resorts, Hassan said. Eight thousand of these chose to continue on to Siwa. But by 2015 traffic dried up almost entirely, and only an estimated 300 foreigners visited Siwa from abroad. In 2016, no one.

“When you issue warnings like this, you are waging war against our primary economic sector,” Hassan said. “You harm not the government, but the people, who then get angry with the government. I’m not being political, I’m just a businessman.”

There is no military or police authorization needed to reach Siwa, Hassan noted, though several checkpoints are set up between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa to check identification. But to go into the desert on a safari to surf the dues needs three. He first secures license from military intelligence, border patrol, and the local police before dispatching any tourist.

And the military is in constant surveillance of the desert area between Siwa and Libya, Hassan said. Terrorists go where the land is empty, which might be a problem further south. He has no problem with a travel restriction issued for Jilf al-Kabīr in southwest Egypt, for example, where Libya, Chad, and Sudan come together.

Hulsman also noted the different security atmosphere in Siwa. Apart for the normal tourist policeman assigned to the bus, there was no police convoy. Traveling to Upper Egypt, however, he has had vehicles travel in front or behind.

Similar was the on the ground experience. In Upper Egypt police ask that any large group be kept together, as easier to secure. But the foreigners and Egyptians alike freely roamed the grounds during an annual Sufi festival in Siwa, chatting with locals and wandering off with them. The security apparatus is much more relaxed there than elsewhere, Hulsman said, confident in the area’s safety.

Unfortunately, this is a reality lost on many Western governments. Mounir Neamatalla, Siwa’s wealthiest investor and owner of the Adrere Amellal: Desert Ecolodge that welcomed Prince Charles in 2006, is eager to change this. In early October he flew an 80-plus mostly foreign delegation to Siwa, including ten heads and deputy heads of diplomatic missions. But the message has not yet filtered through to decision makers in Western foreign ministries, and the travel restrictions remain.

Not for long, if Hulsman has his way. And now he has 29 more who can attest to his vision.

This article was first published at Arab West Report.


Today We are All Oranje

Perhaps this is not so much of an Egypt story, but it does give a glimpse into expatriate life. Ever since the US loss in the World Cup I have been flirting with other national teams, finding myself gravitating to those playing the best soccer, namely, Spain and Germany. The presence of many Dutch in the office presented them as a viable candidate, but, eh, their style in the games I watched, even the victory over Brazil, left something to be desired. Perhaps to extend the flirting analogy, compared to vivacious Spain and buxom Germany, Holland had a nice personality.

Still, I would root for them over portly Uruguay, and the best venue for watching the match was to accept the invitation of my Nederlander colleagues at the Dutch Embassy. Non-Dutch from the office had joined them previously, and raved about the free fries and drinks, and a festive atmosphere capped by a folksy anthem played after every Dutch goal, oddly named Viva Hollandia. More important to me was the afternoon recollection that Julie’s ancestors were Dutch in origin (Van Dame), so why not cheer on family? It doesn’t matter how ugly your sister is, you love her anyway. Couple this with the newfound (and surely temporary, in all confession) belonging to the land of tulips, and I was suddenly eager to be adopted. Despite the relative distance between the embassy and Maadi, I boarded the metro, took a taxi, and arrived only a few minutes late, but to an unpleasant surprise.

As the World Cup was progressing with consecutive Holland victories, the embassy was becoming an increasingly popular place to watch the matches. There was a line out the door, and I found other non-Dutch colleagues outside, frustrated, telling me that while all Dutch were allowed inside, each one could bring only one foreigner apiece along with them. Already late to the match, having traveled a fair jaunt downtown, I faced the prospect of not watching the semifinal at all.

A quick phone call to an earlier entered non-Dutchman sprung a plan into action. The Dutch colleague who secured his presence, thirty minutes before kickoff, went to the door to persuade the bouncer to let me in. I was wearing my orange three-button shirt, but I found out later that she informed him I was her father. I’m 35, she’s 24, and to the bouncer I was unseen as he simply called out my name to come. I imagine he didn’t look too closely, or perhaps life overseas is ageing me more quickly than I realize. In any case without a word of Dutch spoken I was in the inside, though sheepishly leaving my other colleagues behind. What could be done? They weren’t relatives.

The Dutch Embassy is a quaint but stately building resembling a diminutive mansion. My first impression was its smallness, having recently visited the massive US Embassy with its layers and layers of barricades and security clearance. On the contrary, here I was whisked inside under false pretenses with not even a metal detector at the door, and the ambassador traipsing about among the crowd of supporters. I wondered for a moment what it might be like to be a citizen of a midsize nation.

It was only a moment, though, for my second impression was taken completely by the passion exhibited by a soccer superpower. The game was projected on the outside wall of the embassy, with rows of chairs followed by assembled bleachers. Orange was everywhere. Ten minutes after I arrived Holland scored the opening goal, and indeed, the anthem was both festive and folksy. I danced and clapped along with the masses.

Minutes before halftime Uruguay equalized, and the crowd quieted and a trait I have heard of the Dutch began to rear its head. Similar to the English, but without the self-loathing, in soccer the Dutch are good enough to make their fans excited, but then let them down in the end. Having grown accustomed to this outcome, the fans were somewhat expecting the worst, somewhat satisfied they did as well as they had, and still somewhat confident they could win, for it was, after all, only Uruguay. Germany was looming, and national dejection against a hated rival was a gathering cloud.

Americans may not be quite there yet in soccer, but we have a can-do attitude that will not countenance such thoughts. I did what I could. At halftime I donned Dutch facepaint and gave assurance all would be well. “The Dutch will score two this half,” I predicted. “Don’t worry, it will come.”

Sure enough, while my Dutch colleague was nervously passing the minutes with the score at 1-1 feeling like a loss already, the mercurial Dutch center midfielder restored Holland’s lead. As Viva Hollandia again brought everyone to their feet, my words urged them on, “I say they get a third and settle this.”

Minutes later a clinical header made me a prophet, but one still underestimating the Dutch sense of foreboding. The second half melted away with little challenge from Uruguay, while Holland wasted chances to earn their fourth. In injury time their lead suddenly narrowed back to one, and as the anthem was mistakenly played before the final whistle, Uruguay were playing ping pong in the Dutch penalty area, inches each time from drawing even. The stage was set for an epic collapse.

I had no words now, I was fully Dutch. As the referee extended play for what seemed like an eternity, I watched in dismay, saved only by the eventual merciful final whistle. At last, the anthem was appropriate.

But I cannot stay Dutch forever. Amidst the celebration and congratulations I rejoined against every echo of ‘we’ve done well this World Cup’ sentiment. Belief is paramount; Germany is looming. Holland has lost in two previous World Cup finals, they are due and deserving to mount the pantheon of true soccer powers. To stake the claim, however, they must add to their tactical mastery a decent dose of American determination. I feel I have been taken in; now is the time to give back. I will do my best to help will Holland to victory.

Perhaps the Dutch now may rightly decry an American tendency to try to take credit for everything, or, perhaps more accurately, to believe they are at the center of every positive world development. Well, so be it. If all goes well, I can believe what I want, and they will have no reason to complain. On the contrary, we will rejoice together. Today, we are all Oranje.

Postscript: Germany is no longer looming. This post was written yesterday, descriptive of the Dutch expectation to once again face the blitzkrieg. While they may breathe a sigh of relief, I was hopeful of a decisive triumph over the ancient foe. Spain will pose its own unique challenge, and I fear Holland fans may come to say: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. We will see. Hep, Holland, Hep!